The current outbreak of the respiratory disease COVID-19 is caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. This respiratory infection has killed more than 65,884 people worldwide (April 5, 2020) . European governments, as well as those in other regions of the world, hope that lockdowns and bans on public gatherings will slow down the spread of COVID-19. As a result, for the past few weeks, we have all found ourselves in a whole new situation. It is impossible to grasp the full extent of what is happening worldwide. We can probably only focus on small and single aspects.
Science plays an important role in understanding the virus, its transmission, and the pandemic, as well as in the search for diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines. Never before have scientists been so closely linked to work together internationally. And perhaps scientists have never had so much attention in the media.
But much has also changed for the scientists themselves. A great deal of responsibility and pressure is being placed on those working to combat SARS-CoV-2 or its effects. We are grateful for their work and wish them success and the right decisions.
There are also many scientists working in other fields. How are they doing now? Many European universities are closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Italy was the first EU member state to close its universities in the first week of March, before the entire country was placed under quarantine.
We spoke with an Italian and a German professor about the problems this serious situation causes for research. They shared with us their personal experiences in the current situation, the wishes and hopes they have, and the small positive changes they have seen in everyday life.”
Professor Gianluca Giorgi is an organic chemist working at the Department of Biotechnology, Chemistry, and Pharmacy at the University of Siena in Italy. The focus of his research is the study of gas-phase ion chemistry of organic and bioorganic compounds and metabolomics, with special regards to structural, regio-, and stereochemical features and reactivity. He uses different approaches of mass spectrometry and computational methods.
Professor Stefanie Dehnen is an inorganic chemist at the Philipps Universität Marburg, Germany. Her research is focused on the experimental and quantum chemical investigation of compounds with multinary – in particular multimetallic – nanoarchitectures, which have potential as innovative catalysts, white-light emitters, or battery materials.
Professor Gianluca Giorgi says that working in the laboratory is currently not possible in Italy. Instead, he concentrates on reading papers, writing own papers, evaluating data, and correcting graduation theses. The inorganic chemistry division of the chemistry department in Marburg is not completely closed down but admission is extremely restricted. Only one person per lab or office can enter at a time to avoid all personal contact. This makes it impossible to continue with experiments. So for Professor Stefanie Dehnen, as well, the analysis of data, writing up papers and proposals, reviewing, reading, and other desk work is her current focus.
Communication with colleagues and students takes place via video and audio meetings. Stefanie Dehnen says “We recognize that conversations and meetings work much better in a remote mode than anticipated. However, it is a great challenge for science, for teaching, and also for the organization of chemical societies to continue like this.”
While in Germany there are still semester breaks, in Italy the semester started on March 9. “Being unable to make face-to-face lessons, I started recording the lessons and posting them on the university e-learning website,” Gianluca Giorgi said. He finds that his students are very hardworking.
If a course has less than 20 students, he uses video meetings to hold the course. “Just this morning I held a live lesson. It worked very well. This allows students to ask questions during the lesson and teacher-students interaction is more effective and fruitful.”
Another challenge is exams. How do you transfer a two-hour written exam, in which formulas and diagrams are queried, to an online exam? How do you make sure that you are actually testing the student’s knowledge and prevent him/her from getting information from somewhere else in between? “I will probably be forced to change the kind of test by submitting one question at a time and only allow a short time to answer.”
“In Marburg, individual oral exams can be done via face-to-face video meetings, of course, with strict regulations and control of the students’ adherence to it.” Yet, according to Stefanie Dehnen’s experience, this works and helps students to finish the term without delay.
Financial and Career Impact
If you cannot continue your work in the laboratory, it is uncertain whether deadlines can still be met or if they will be postponed, whether research funds are still available, and it is unclear what the disadvantages are for a researchers’ career if no more results come in for a while. The researchers said that a lot of flexibility and creativity are necessary to avoid that the crisis impacts the scientific career. This is especially true for researchers early in their careers. And, of course, this can also cause anxiety.
“The financial impact depends on how long this situation is going to continue,” Stefanie Dehnen adds. For her group, right now, there is no problem. “On the contrary, we have time to write research proposals. Yet, at some point, we need new results to emerge to be able to continue with our work. The situation will be more problematic then.” She especially thanks the German Research Foundation (DFG), “who now allow a cost-neutral extension of the funding period of research grants owing to this exceptional situation.”
I have asked Professors Dehnen and Giorgi if they can see positive aspects of the current situation. Gianluca Giorgi replied that
“this is the fourth week of quarantine. A lot of people have died, and a lot are sick, many seriously. My thought is with all of them, their families and relatives.
But in this situation, not everything is bad. Many families, including mine, are gathering at home. This is a very special occasion to enjoy each family member and for taking care of each other. Further, receiving messages from many friends from different parts of the world, asking how my family and I are, is very nice. They let me feel less alone and truly “connected” to the world in our deserted towns.
In addition, saving three hours a day of traveling from home to the university and vice versa, I have some time to do housework and, I hope, in the next few days to pursue my hobbies. Of course, I do hope the situation improves quickly, and that we soon have the opportunity to continue our experimental and lab activities, as well as face-to-face lessons and meetings with students and colleagues. In other words, to live the real life of the university and my job to the fullest. Let’s cross our fingers!”
And Stefanie Dehnen:
“One of my most important hobbies, playing in an orchestra, is stopped due to the pandemic, which is very sad. However, instead, I started to run regularly together with my husband and my children, which I appreciate a lot. I did not take the time to do sports previously, but now, I recognize that it gives me back power for further work. So it is definitely worth the time.
I appreciate that our environment has the chance to recover for the moment. I suspect that this will not last long, as the “normal life” will start even more powerfully than it ended, presumably.
I hope that everyone keeps a bit of their current behavior regarding reduced mobility, calmness, and spending more time with their families in the future. This situation is also a chance to try and do things that you could not do before, when you thought that you do not have enough time for it. Many things can be done to get back to the foundation of life and yourself.
Many thanks to doctors and nursing staff, virologists, and other scientists that are currently working to help where help is needed, prevent further expansion of the virus, and do research to fight the pandemic.”
We are very grateful that Stefanie Dehnen and Gianluca Giorgi shared some of their thoughts with us. We hope that the situation will soon change positively and wish everyone health, the courage to persevere, and good ideas to make the best of the situation. Stay safe and healthy!
 Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (accessed April 5, 2020)
Also of Interest
- The Dehnen Group, Philipps Universität Marburg, Germany
- Gianluca Giorgi, Università di Siena, Italy
- Collection: SARS-CoV-2 Virus
What we know about the new coronavirus and COVID-19 – articles published in ChemistryViews related to SARS-CoV-2